With all the talk about Jadeveon Clowney’s 40-yard dash time and hit from the Outback Bowl on Tuesday at Southeastern Conference media days, not to mention the fact that Connor Shaw could be doubling as a quarterback and wide receiver/running back this year, it was easy to lose sight of Bruce Ellington, South Carolina’s third representative at this beehive of cheap polo shirts.
Two seasons ago, Ellington was a great athlete awkwardly trying to reacclimatize himself to football. He had sat out the 2010 season while just playing basketball. Now, he is entering his third and final season as a two-sport athlete at USC. And he is very much a capable college receiver, as he showed last year, when he led USC with 600 receiving yards and was second to Ace Sanders with 40 catches and seven touchdowns.
Ellington, of course, caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Dylan Thompson in the Outback Bowl.
“That’s the biggest moment of my life,” he said. “Catching a game-winning touchdown is something kids dream of.”
With Sanders off early to the NFL, Ellington is now USC’s unquestioned top receiver. And he has assumed more of a leadership role this offseason, he said.
“The biggest thing I’ve done is step up to be more of a vocal leader,” he said. “Ace, he helped me out in the years I’ve been here and he showed me how I have to do it. Just telling (teammates) to get extra work in after workouts or after practice, do the little things.”
Ellington said he finally felt completely comfortable as a college receiver in last year’s 10th game, against Arkansas, when he caught five passes for 104 yards and a touchdown. In the previous game, against Tennessee, he had six catches for 101 yards and a touchdown. Those are his only two 100-yard receiving games.
“I think that (game against Arkansas) was the biggest game that it finally clicked that I could make plays and step up and be a leader on the team,” Ellington said.
As the Gamecocks try to replace Sanders’ 45 catches, 531 yards and nine touchdowns, they will lean on Ellington’s seemingly boundless energy, which makes his teammates and coaches raise their eyebrows. While USC will need other receivers to contribute as well – Shamier Jeffery, Nick Jones, Shaq Roland, to name three – Ellington is the key to the passing game.
“That boy is the Energizer bunny,” said Clowney. “He doesn’t get tired. He ran like 50 gassers the other day. People who came late, he ran with them. People who missed (a workout and had to run for punishment), he ran with them. Bruce is one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever seen, conditioning-wise. I’m like, ‘I don’t know how you do it, man.’ I’m going to bow down to the guy.”
Said USC basketball coach Frank Martin: “Bruce is one of my favorite kids of all time. I can’t keep him away from me. I called him (when) I was in Charleston last (month) and I drove through Moncks Corner just because I wanted to see his hometown. I said, ‘Bruce, you kept telling me how popular you are over here. I don’t see anything with your name here anywhere. I don’t think anyone knows who you are.’ He’s one of my favorite kids. He’s in my office every day. Every single day. He just wants to come around and he just wants to talk. It could be talk about school, it could be talk about his car, it could be talk about last year’s team, it could be talk about his high school team. We’ll sit and talk about some of the responsibilities that he’s accepted in football. It’s just who he is.
“This is a tough time of the year for him because he can’t sit still. He can’t just go to his dorm room and watch TV. He just can’t do it. He’s got to be engaged. He’s one of those special athletes that can do it. He wants to be in all our (basketball) workouts. He wants to play in that pro-am in town. But (football) camp is right around the corner. You can’t do (that other stuff) right now. You’ve got to rest your body because when camp starts, that’s an NFL grind for however number of months it is and then you turn around and go back to basketball. So he’s got to rest his body. And he understands.
“But this is difficult for him because he can’t engage as much as he wants to. But he’ll come to workouts and he’ll sit on the side and watch guys work out, just pay attention. He’s always listening for teaching points, so when he goes out there, the stuff that he heard you tell the other players, he already understands even though he hasn’t done it yet. He’s special.”